Seek­ing jus­tice in the Philip­pines

Many fear tak­ing on the po­lice for killings in a bru­tal drug war. This widow doesn’t.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Jonathan Kaiman jonathan.kaiman@la­times.com Twit­ter: @JRKaiman

QUEZON CITY, Philip­pines — The rain was re­lent­less the night Cher­wen Polo turned 38, trans­form­ing his slum into a slurry of mud and garbage. Water leaked through his cor­ru­gated tin roof. In­side, he and four friends had been cel­e­brat­ing for hours, drink­ing late into the night.

There was a knock at the door. It was the po­lice.

Mo­ments later, they shot and killed Polo and three of his friends.

The raid on Aug. 14, 2016, was busi­ness as usual for the Philip­pine po­lice, who have killed an es­ti­mated 3,800 sus­pected drug deal­ers and users since that sum­mer in a bru­tal but pop­u­lar cam­paign waged by the pres­i­dent, Ro­drigo Duterte. As is typ­i­cal in such cases, po­lice said that the op­er­a­tion was a “buy-bust” and that Polo had fired on them first.

The dead have left be­hind count­less fam­ily mem­bers, most too over­whelmed, too im­pov­er­ished or too afraid of po­lice re­tal­i­a­tion to pur­sue jus­tice through the courts.

Polo’s 30-year-old widow is dif­fer­ent: Kath­rina Polo has de­cided to seek jus­tice.

Her at­tor­ney, Ona Car­i­tos, said she will soon file a case with the om­buds­man of the Philip­pines — who is re­spon­si­ble for in­ves­ti­gat­ing and pros­e­cut­ing of­fi­cials — ac­cus­ing 16 po­lice of­fi­cers of in­dis­crim­i­nate killing. Hu­man rights ad­vo­cates have dubbed the case the “Birth­day Mas­sacre.”

Polo’s widow, like the ma­jor­ity of vic­tims of Duterte’s drug war, is poor. Her neigh­bor­hood — Pay­atas in Quezon City, near Manila — is a war­ren of shacks, open-air kitchens and piles of trash, and home to as many as 500,000 peo­ple.

She met Polo in 2006, when she was 19, and be­fore long, the two eloped. “I didn’t fall in love with him right away,” she said. “It de­vel­oped over time. He wasn’t very good-look­ing. But he was nice.”

The cou­ple had three chil­dren: Marco, Kaith­lyn and Erinne, now 2, 7 and 10. Polo was a good fa­ther who did much of the cook­ing and other house­hold chores, his widow said.

He was also a drug runner for two years be­fore find­ing work in May in construction, said Kath­rina Polo, a buyer for lo­cal phar­ma­cies.

What fol­lows is her ac­count of events the night of the killings.

Cher­wen Polo and his friends were drink­ing heav­ily up­stairs while Kath­rina Polo stayed down­stairs with the chil­dren, who fell asleep on a mat. Around 11 p.m., she went up­stairs to check on her hus­band and found him and a friend — whom she knew only as “Rambo” — passed out.

The other men — Dar­win Hamoy, 17, Wil­liam Bordeos, 29, and Harold Arevalo, 29 — sat in the cor­ner, start­ing on a fresh case of beer.

Kath­rina Polo was pre­par­ing milk for­mula for Marco at 11:45 p.m. when some­body knocked at the gate — just a light tap.

Then she heard the voice of Bordeos, who had gone to an­swer the door. “There’s noth­ing — please don’t,” he said.

Gun­fire rang out. “This is a raid!” the men shouted as they trun­dled up the stairs. Then she heard two more shots.

A po­lice of­fi­cer came down­stairs, opened the front door and told Kath­rina Polo to get out.

“Why would I get out?” she replied. “This is my house!”

But when the of­fi­cer grabbed her 10-year-old, Kath­rina Polo fol­lowed them out­side. She saw Bordeos on the ground, a gun­shot wound be­neath his eye, his head a mess of gore.

“What’s hap­pen­ing?” she asked.

“You know what’s hap­pen­ing,” an of­fi­cer replied.

Kath­rina Polo took the chil­dren to a neigh­bor’s house. Then she heard Arevalo cry­ing for help. There was a thump, like a blow to the body, and a soli­tary scream.

It was 4 a.m. when she re­turned home.

“Ev­ery­thing was taken away,” she said — her money, her jew­elry, a new TV, even the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals that she sold. Blood coated most of the sec­ond floor. The roof above the kitchen had col­lapsed. Arevalo must have jumped onto it from the sec­ond-story win­dow, Kath­rina Polo fig­ured.

She went to the lo­cal po­lice sta­tion.

“Sir, where can I find my hus­band?” she asked an of­fi­cer.

“Are you re­lated to Harold [Arevalo]?” the of­fi­cer replied. “He’s the only one who sur­vived.”

“I don’t be­lieve you,” Kath­rina Polo said. “My hus­band was sleep­ing. How could you shoot some­one who’s asleep?”

The po­lice had taken all five men to hospi­tals, where all but Arevalo were pro­nounced dead on ar­rival.

Charged with as­sault, Arevalo was briefly de­tained, then went into hid­ing.

Kath­rina Polo ap­proached a higher-level po­lice of­fi­cer about the case, and he con­nected her with the Philip­pine Com­mis­sion on Hu­man Rights, which was es­tab­lished un­der the coun­try’s 1987 con­sti­tu­tion to in­ves­ti­gate al­leged hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions.

The com­mis­sion took the case and so­licited tes­ti­mony from Pay­atas po­lice, who told a very dif­fer­ent story from Kath­rina’s ac­count.

In a joint af­fi­davit, two po­lice of­fi­cers present that night — Her­bert An­goluan and Wil­son Es­curo — said a “re­li­able in­for­mant” told them that Polo was sell­ing shabu, a cheap metham­phetamine.

Their sta­tion com­man­der dis­patched a team of 14 of­fi­cers to Cher­wen Polo’s house to con­duct a buy-bust op­er­a­tion. Es­curo, wear­ing civil­ian clothes, knocked on the gate, as the other of­fi­cers hid nearby.

Polo opened it, “ap­par­ently wait­ing for a drug cus­tomer while his co­horts ac­tu­ally en­gaged in a drugs … ses­sion in­side his house,” the af­fi­davit said. When Polo re­al­ized Es­curo was a po­lice­man, he shouted and be­gan shoot­ing while re­treat­ing into his house, the state­ment said.

The five men in the house “pulled their hand­guns and fired to­wards us and … the team, prompt­ing us to re­tal­i­ate re­sult­ing in the neu­tral­iza­tion of the sus­pects,” that ac­count said.

Po­lice said they took the bodies to a hospi­tal, searched the house and found five loaded guns and two small plas­tic bags of shabu. They also said a fifth man died in the raid, but he has not been iden­ti­fied, and Kath­rina Polo said no­body else was in her house that night.

The of­fi­cers dis­missed Kath­rina Polo’s tes­ti­mony as “mere con­jec­tures and pre­sump­tion.” The su­per­in­ten­dent over­see­ing the raid — Lito Patay — could not be reached for com­ment.

The hu­man rights com­mis­sion said the of­fi­cers’ tes­ti­mony raises sev­eral ques­tions: If it’s true, why does the house show no signs of a gun bat­tle — no bul­let holes in its walls, roof or stair­case? Why the in­con­sis­tency between the po­lice and Polo’s ac­count over who an­swered the knock at the gate?

Why did the po­lice give the com­mis­sion pic­tures of guns and drugs in the house, but no bodies? Why did they re­move the bodies be­fore crime scene in­ves­ti­ga­tors ar­rived? Why did they find no firearm on Arevalo? Why would he jump out of a win­dow and leave a gun be­hind?

Polo’s story is sup­ported by an au­topsy re­port that was re­viewed by the Los An­ge­les Times and shows that Bordeos was prob­a­bly shot in the back and that Cher­wen Polo was pre­sum­ably not out­side when he was shot, but rather ly­ing in the right cor­ner of the up­stairs bed­room.

Duterte’s govern­ment has ex­pressed hos­til­ity to­ward the hu­man rights com­mis­sion. The Philip­pine Con­gress’ lower house voted last month to slash the com­mis­sion’s $17-mil­lion bud­get to about $20. The Sen­ate pushed back by propos­ing an in­crease. The two houses must ne­go­ti­ate a fi­nal bud­get.

Soon af­ter Polo’s widow de­cided to pur­sue the case, she said, she be­gan re­ceiv­ing threat­en­ing calls from peo­ple who re­fused to iden­tify them­selves. In one in­stance, the caller said he rep­re­sented the hu­man rights com­mis­sion and told her to come to the lo­cal po­lice sta­tion. When she called the com­mis­sion, it de­nied plac­ing the call.

Later, she re­ceived a text mes­sage: “You’d bet­ter stop,” it said, “or you’ll fol­low in [your hus­band’s] foot­steps.” An­other time, two uniden­ti­fied men at­tempted to pick up her chil­dren from school but left af­ter the school se­cu­rity guard be­gan ask­ing ques­tions.

If the of­fice of the om­buds­man of the Philip­pines finds there may be enough ev­i­dence for an in­dict­ment, it refers the case to a court, typ­i­cally within a year. The court then has the fi­nal say on in­no­cence or guilt. An­a­lysts say the case of the Birth­day Mas­sacre could drag on for years.

“When­ever the trail leads to a govern­ment of­fi­cial, or po­lice of­fi­cers them­selves, then it goes cold, it dies,” said Phe­lim Kine, deputy di­rec­tor at the Asia di­vi­sion of Hu­man Rights Watch. “And this hap­pens a fair bit.”

“It’s the bravest, most re­silient peo­ple who would want to try to risk that and go through this meat grinder of a sys­tem to try to get jus­tice for their loved ones,” he said. “And that de­serves great re­spect, but ‘an up­hill bat­tle’ doesn’t even be­gin to de­scribe what they’re go­ing through.”

In the mean­time, the drug war con­tin­ues. On Aug. 14, po­lice in the prov­ince of Bu­la­can killed 32 drug sus­pects in what’s be­come known as the cam­paign’s “blood­i­est night.”

The next day, Manila po­lice killed 12 more in what they called a “one-time, big­time” crack­down on drug sus­pects. One of the vic­tims — Kian Loyd de­los San­tos — was 17, spurring thou­sands of peo­ple to take to the streets in protest.

The demon­stra­tion was a rare dis­play — and per­haps a sign that sup­port for Duterte’s cam­paign may be start­ing to wane.

A Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll con­ducted between Fe­bru­ary and May found that 78% of Filipinos sup­ported Duterte’s anti-drug cam­paign. But the polling or­ga­ni­za­tion So­cial Weather Sta­tions re­ported this week that 49% of Filipinos agreed that many vic­tims of the cam­paign were “not re­ally drug push­ers.”

This week, in an ap­par­ent re­sponse to crit­ics, Duterte said he was trans­fer­ring anti-drug op­er­a­tions from the po­lice to the Philip­pine Drug En­force­ment Agency. He is­sued a sim­i­lar sus­pen­sion of po­lice in­volve­ment in the drug war in Jan­uary but lifted it a month later.

Aaron Fav­ila As­so­ci­ated Press

A PO­LICE­MAN guards a sus­pected drug den af­ter a deadly raid last year in Quezon City, Philip­pines, not far from where po­lice killed Cher­wen Polo weeks ear­lier.

Jonathan Kaiman Los An­ge­les Times

KATH­RINA POLO, shown with her son Marco, is pur­su­ing a case ac­cus­ing 16 po­lice of­fi­cers of in­dis­crim­i­nately killing her hus­band, Cher­wen, and three friends.

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